TV review: The Strain Episode 1 (Night Zero)
Ivan Radford | On 17, Sep 2014
Warning: This contains very minor spoilers.
Vampires are young, sexy and cool. Everyone knows this. Everyone except Guillermo del Toro. Thank goodness, then, that he is the one behind The Strain, the latest fanged creation to swoop onto our screens. In his world, vampires are neither sexy nor cool. They definitely aren’t young. They’re not even called vampires.
The Strain, as its title suggests, dresses vamp lore for the modern age: gone are capes and fangs, in their place a viral plague. (The reversal of how Bram Stoker’s original beast was conceived.) So when an airplane full of dead bodies – and a large, suspicious-looking coffin – lands on the tarmac in New York, the immediate response isn’t a priest or hunter, but a virologist: Ephraim Goodweather, played by Corey Stoll.
Eph and his team at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention swiftly quarantine the plane and investigate its innards. Here is where The Strain sends its first shivers down your spine. There is something about an airplane that is inherently unsettling; between the ritualistic routines, the claustrophobic containment and the vulnerable hull lies a creeping sense of danger, of something foreign. That The Strain opens with this striking image (as opposed to, say, a flying bat or Transylvanian castle) is a mission statement for the whole story. This is horror, Jim, but not as we know it; a fantasy that feels closer to sci-fi.
The germ of the show has gestated in del Toro’s brain since he was a boy: after failing to bring it into existence on screen, The Strain became a trilogy of novels, co-written with Chuck Hogan. Given the cinematic nature of the prose, it is no surprise to see it on TV at last – nor to see that Guillermo is at the helm for the opening chapter (which sticks closely to the page). Chuck has again helped to pen this adaptation, but the director’s fingerprints are all over it, from the freaky gore to the cheesy cliches.
Eph is a workaholic going through marital difficulties – a fact that we are explicitly told during exposition-heavy therapy sessions – and doesn’t really understand women – a fact that we are explicitly told by his colleague, Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), with whom he has (ahem) worked closely. The rest of the ensemble seem similarly two-dimensional, from Sean Astin’s assistant and Ben Hyland’s overlooked son, Zach Goodweather, to Miguel Gómez’s criminal-for-hire, Gus.
Subtlety, it is safe to say, is not The Strain’s strong point. Science is.
Just as a hammy David Bradley appears as Van Helsing-alike Abraham Setrakian, a point at which some might give up, we get our first look at the creatures infecting the human race. And what we see is fascinating: a gross, clammy revision of Dracula and co., which casts the exotic, erotic myth as a bottom-of-the-chain parasite; a disease that worms its way under your skin and makes it crawl.
“Strigoi” is the term used to describe the undead by the bearded Setrakian – who, tellingly, doesn’t carry a stake around, but does run a pawn shop. Guillermo del Toro shoots their spread with style, all neon safety yellows and panicked blood reds. But this is far from the high art of Penny Dreadful. The dialogue is quite, quite terrible – “Where did the closet go?” asks Sean Astin, pointing at the spot where the thing-that-is-obviously-a-coffin used to be – and while the novels develop the supporting cast with increasing complexity, this first hour carries little hint of such depth.
Still, these should be no obstacle to knowing enjoyment of something so steeped in love of the genre. In this golden age of TV horror, The Strain is not a dainty cocktail to be sipped at delicately: it is a B-movie writ small. A pulpy milkshake to guzzle with giddy relish.
The prospect of a shadowy organisation furthering the big bad’s cause is reassuringly familiar, while del Toro’s world building is top-notch. It’s a pleasure to see House of Cards’ Corey Stoll given a leading role too. He even uses an iPad convincingly. In an increasingly crowded arena, this no-nonsense serving of trash (coupled with unnerving monster design) makes for a refreshing slurp.
The stars of the show for now, though, are not the humans and there is a thrill to discovering something unknown under the proverbial bed.
“You don’t like negotiating with terrorists? Try a virus,” Stoll’s self-centred scientist lectures a cop. “It has no political views. It has no religious beliefs.”
Viruses and vampires have always been unnatural bedfellows. The Strain transports that bond to a modern society where fangs have never been seen before; a biological thriller that taps into universal fears of contagion and infection. Through the veins of this creaky old corpse run the ideas of a boy’s feverish imagination; it pokes a proboscis into traditional lore – an unseen immigrant crossing over water carries all the threat of Bram Stoker’s boat voyage – only to drain it of all old-fashioned glamour, before pummelling its head into a bloody mess on the floor. The Strain is a vampire series: and there’s nothing young or sexy about it.
The Strain Season 1 is available on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with the first month only £1 if you sign up before 27th September. You can also buy it on blinkbox, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Wuaki.tv and Google Play.